ABEL GANCE’S BEETHOVEN (Un grand amour de Beethoven)
(director/writer: Abel Gance; screenwriter: Steve Passeur; cinematographer: Louis Masson; editor: Marguerite Beaugé/Galitzine; music: Louis Masson; cast: Harry Baur (Ludwig van Beethoven), Jean Debucourt (Count Robert Gallenberg), Jean-Louis Barrault (Karl Van Beethoven), Paul Pauley (Schuppanzigh), Annie Ducaux (Thérèse of Brunswick), Marcel Dalio (Steiner, publisher), Jany Holt (Juliette Guicciardi), André Nox (Humpholz); Runtime: 116; MPAA Rating: NR; Image Entertainment; 1936-France-in French with English subtitles)
“Fascinating biopic on the 19th-century Ludwig van Beethoven.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
French director Abel Gance’s (“Napoleon”) rarely seen fascinating biopic on the 19th-century Ludwig van Beethoven (Harry Baur) as a tormented genius is framed around the great German composer’s love for two women Juliette Guicciardi (Jany Holt) and Thérèse of Brunswick (Annie Ducaux). Though the story is historically questionable (it has the composer married, for one thing, when he never did) it nevertheless impressively catches the composer as an emotional man falling in love and feeling both ecstasy and agony over his relationships as his music relates to his love life. It’s co-written by Gance and Steve Passeur.
It opens in 1801 in Vienna with a confident Beethoven, who moved there recently from Germany, comforting an hysterical grieving mother over the loss of her son with a piano score he composed for the occasion. It then follows the music teacher and his love for his fickle student Juliette, whom he showers with love letters to the disgust of her father. But Juliette rejects him for Count Robert Gallenberg (Jean Debucourt), falling in love after listening to his score for a ballet at Corrompas and mistakenly thinking his second-rate music is equal to Beethoven’s. As she tells Beethoven she plans to marry the Count, he composes the beautiful but melancholy “Moonlight Sonata.” Without Juliette, the despondent Beethoven retreats to take up residence in 1802 at the mill at Heiligenstadt. Soon he becomes deaf and a suicidal depression sets in until he realizes he can still compose through the sounds he remembered. He’s aided by the loyal Thérèse, who loves him madly. By the time 1813 rolls around Beethoven has composed the 6th, 7th and 8th Symphonies.
The unhappy Juliette is locked into a loveless marriage to the hack composer and returns from Italy to ask Beethoven to forgive her and take her back. But Beethoven can’t turn his back on Thérèse and marries her. We turn to 1826 and see that Beethoven has been rejected by the world in favor of more fashionable and lighter composers, as his 9th Sympathy and Eroica are rejected by music publisher Steiner (Marcel Dalio). Along with his long-suffering wife, Beethoven lives in poverty as an invalid in an abandoned monastery. In 1827 an illness strikes and undependable nephew Karl (Jean-Louis Barrault), who has been stealing his music for years, deserts him in his time of need. While on his deathbed Beethoven’s told by friends his latest work has been grandly received in concert and he says “It’s too late. The comedy is over. Applaud!”
Though given to leaden dramatic moments, Beethoven’s struggle to make music is given an intense, sincere and moving treatment. Harry Baur as the maestro was inspired casting. The arc of the story covers Beethoven as a romantic dreamer, his despair over his deafness and the cold world that had misgivings about his music, his defiance and the attempt to answer who was the mysterious lady he wrote the passionate love letter entitled the “Immortal Beloved” found after his death. Beethoven scholars have no idea whom it was addressed to, but the filmmaker says it was addressed to Juliette, the only one he truly loved, and not to Thérèse who assumed it was meant for her. Hey, I’ll let the scholars sort those things out.
REVIEWED ON 4/29/2006 GRADE: B+ https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/